by Catherine Marshall

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

First published: New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967

Genre(s): Novel

Subgenre(s): Historical fiction (twentieth century); romance; saga

Core issue(s): Awakening; compassion; friendship; love; service; trust in God

Principal characters

Christy Rudd Huddleston, the protagonist

Alice Henderson, a teacher

Dr. Neil MacNeill, a physician

David Grantland, a minister

Fairlight Spencer, a mountain woman

Ruby Mae Morrison, a student

Lundy Taylor, a student


The daughter and wife of Presbyterian ministers, Catherine Marshall fictionalized the religious awakening her mother experienced while teaching in Appalachia. Nineteen-year-old Christy Huddleston—inspired by Marshall’s mother, Leonora Whitaker Wood—volunteers to teach after hearing about efforts by the American Inland Mission and Miss Alice Henderson, a Quaker teacher, to establish schools for mountain children discussed at a church conference.

Leaving her Asheville, North Carolina, home by train in January of 1912, Christy ignores the conductor’s warnings that Cutter Gap is dangerous because of feuds and vice and that she is unprepared for the extremes she will encounter. Christy walks seven miles from the depot in snow and cold temperatures toward the mission building with Ben Pentland, who delivers mail. On the way, Christy and Pentland stop at the Allen cabin, where men bring unconscious family patriarch Bob Allen, saying he suffered an accident on his way to greet the schoolteacher. Christy meets brusque Dr. Neil MacNeill, who performs emergency surgery, and observes the superstitious ways of the mountain people. Her repulsion at the rustic cabin’s lack of sanitation and people’s seemingly unenlightened practices test her commitment, but Christy resolves to stay.

Exhausted, Christy arrives at the mission, where she meets preacher David Grantland, his sister Ida, and Ruby Mae Morrison, a student who helps at the mission. Christy welcomes her pupils at the school building, which also serves as a church, and soon learns that they are more complex than she expected. Christy is impressed by their intelligence but not by their hygiene, and holds a handkerchief over her nose. She leads daily recitations of Bible verses, as required by Tennessee law at that time, and develops lessons she can adjust for children of all ages grouped together in her single classroom.

Christy struggles to teach without adequate supplies and books and plans how to secure materials. She visits students’ homes and tries to explain proper sanitation to their parents. Frustrated because male and female students insist on sitting separately and children avoid people from rival families, Christy disciplines fighting children and attempts to enforce discipline when older boys, especially Lundy Taylor, play pranks.

Meeting Miss Alice Henderson, Christy confides her disappointment and concerns, questioning whether she should leave. She admires the older teacher, seeking her guidance and addressing practical concerns regarding educational and spiritual issues; Miss Alice reinforces Christy’s resolve to continue her work. Christy’s endurance of hardships is strengthened by her interactions with adults interested in learning. She begins teaching Fairlight Spencer, with whom she develops a friendship, and attends sewing circle sessions where Miss Alice tells parables. Christy learns about the people she has chosen to teach and live among, enjoying tales explaining their Scotch-Irish traditions. She delights in everyday things and applies the religious understanding she acquires from reading the Bible, evaluating scriptures, and praying. She matures spiritually and emotionally.

Upset that children walk miles barefoot to school despite snowy conditions, Christy decides to create a boarding facility at the mission where pupils can stay during the winter. Praying about how she will fund her project, Christy resourcefully writes potential patrons and boldly travels to Knoxville to discuss her ideas with a rich businessman. Her prayers are answered with an...

(This entire section contains 1467 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

outpouring of donated items and funds.

The brutal murder of a friend’s husband, Tom McHone, and Christy’s discovery of jugs of moonshine hidden underneath the school shatter her confidence that she can improve the lives of the mountain people. She contemplates her spirituality, reevaluating her philosophy of what religion means to her. Christy ponders secrets confided to her by Miss Alice, realizing that Miss Alice resists some of the Quaker ways she considers incompatible with her work. As Miss Alice advises, Christy studies the Bible and thoroughly evaluates her beliefs. She is shaken when Dr. MacNeill comments that Christy merely repeats what Miss Alice tells her, pressuring Christy to state her opinions. He says that, although he believes God exists, he dislikes how God lets people suffer and refuses to embrace faith.

A typhoid epidemic initiates Christy’s greatest spiritual crisis. Frustrated by how ignorance perpetuates the spread of that disease by contaminated water and food, Christy nurses afflicted students and adults, grieving when they die and rejoicing when remedies she uses save Ruby Mae and other victims. The death of Fairlight Spencer profoundly affects Christy; she doubts her faith and is angry at God. Miss Alice suggests that Christy read the Book of Job, who also was frustrated with God. Miss Alice instructs that God allows people to suffer troubles but is present and supportive, suggesting Christy talk to God and trust in God, submitting to his wishes in order to become stronger.

Christy falls ill and, while unconscious, in her mind retreats to a secluded mountain site that resembles Heaven. There she sees her deceased students and friends, including Fairlight. Tempted to stay in Heaven, Christy awakens when Dr. MacNeill tells her he loves her and she hears him apologizing to God, begging for forgiveness, and professing faith in him. Her faith reaffirmed, Christy realizes her compassion for her mountain community and the purpose God gave her to serve them with both her heart and her soul.

Christian Themes

Prior to writing about Christy, Marshall underwent a spiritual crisis following the death of her first husband. She was ill for two years with tuberculosis. She sought guidance from ministers and prayer, asking questions, much as Christy does, to establish a personal connection by talking to God. Marshall developed a great joy and enthusiasm for God, writing Christy to share her deep love for and closeness to Jesus Christ, to reinforce her faith, and to help others achieve knowledge of God.

Marshall’s evangelical nature resulted in her incorporating in Christy the message that every individual, regardless of denominational or religious affiliation, can develop a personal relationship with God through prayer and trust him as a guide, seeking a deeper understanding through faith, as Christy does. Marshall hoped to help people see Jesus Christ as an approachable and genuine source of comfort and inspiration, not simply as an abstract idea.

Through her evaluation of her beliefs, Christy realizes that God gives people strength when their faith is tested and weaknesses threaten to divert them from their path. She discovers that God has a plan for each person, a design for each individual’s purpose and duties in life. Despite despair, doubts, and hardships, good prevails over evil. God answers prayers in ways most suitable for each individual, although his response may not seem appropriate initially.

Christy also finds that people’s spirituality is reflected more in how they live and how they treat others than in whether they attend church. Comparing churches, Christy notes her home church did not inspire her to the degree that mountain services and work do. Christy’s actions emphasize that God values the richness of people’s spirits, not their material wealth. Christy unselfishly tends to her neighbors, regardless of their wealth or poverty, sophistication or lack of education, discovering that those who give and share are blessed. She welcomes God’s instructions on how she can best serve her community, accepting responsibilities and being accountable to both God and her fellow human beings.

Finally, Christy learns that unconditional love is a gift from God, whether it is her altruistic affection for others or the romantic love that develops between her and Dr. MacNeill, with its potential for companionship, family, and service.

Sources for Further Study

  • Goin, Mary Elisabeth. “Catherine Marshall: Three Decades of Popular Religion.” Journal of Presbyterian History 56, no. 3 (Fall, 1978): 219-235. Examines how Marshall developed her writing to help readers meet God and seek salvation as a goal, stressing her focus on the individual’s spiritual experiences.
  • McReynolds, Kathy. Catherine Marshall. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1999. Explores Marshall’s spiritual beliefs and practices while writing Christy and how that book affected her spiritually after publication. Incorporates excerpts from her journals.
  • Marshall, Catherine. A Closer Walk. Edited by Leonard E. LeSourd. Old Tappan, N.J.: Chosen Books, 1986. Marshall’s second husband, a religious publisher, remarks on his editorial input while she wrote early drafts of Christy. Includes Marshall’s spiritual lifeline.
  • Marshall, Catherine. Meeting God at Every Turn: A Personal Family Story. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Chosen Books, 2002. A chapter discusses Marshall’s mother, her religious viewpoints, her mission work, and how she influenced the characterization of Christy.